NAJAF, Iraq – Iraqi police have arrested four al-Qaida-linked suspects in the bombing of Iraq’s holiest Shiite Muslim shrine, a senior police official told The Associated Press on Saturday.
The official, who said the explosion death toll had risen to 107, said the men — two Iraqis and two Saudis — were caught shortly after Friday’s car bombing.
The attack killed one of the most important Shiite clerics in Iraq, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who had been cooperating with the American occupation force.
On Saturday, 4,000 mourners chanted for vengeance in Najaf. In Baghdad, about 3,000 Shiites protested peacefully for about an hour at the gates of the U.S.-led coalition headquarters, complaining that the coalition’s failure to provide security led to al-Hakim’s death.
The police official, who led the initial investigation and interrogation of the captives, said the prisoners told of other plots to assassinate political and religious leaders and to damage vital installations such as power plants, water supplies and oil pipelines.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the bomb was made from the same type of materials used in the Aug. 19 bombing at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which killed at least 23 people died, and the Jordanian Embassy attack on Aug. 7, which killed 19.
The FBI said the U.N. bomb was constructed from ordnance left over from the regime of Saddam Hussein, much of it produced in the former Soviet Union.
The Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite broadcaster, quoting the Najaf governor, said 1,550 pounds of explosives were planted in two cars.
The police official said the suspects claimed a recent wave of bombings were designed to keep Iraq in a state of chaos so that police and American forces would be unable to focus attention on the country’s porous borders, where suspected foreign fighters are believed to be infiltrating.
The four men arrived in Najaf three days before the bombing and had been staying with a friend who did not know their intentions, the official said.
American officials believe militants from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran are coming to Iraq to attack Western interests. President Bush said earlier this month that more foreign “al-Qaida-type fighters” have moved in.
Last week, a shadowy group that takes its name from the alias of Mohammed Atef, Osama bin Laden (news – web sites)’s top deputy, claimed responsibility for the U.N. headquarters bombing.
The Abu Hafs el-Masri Brigades — one of three groups to claim responsibility for the attack — made its claim on a Web site, but U.S. officials said they could not authenticate it and it remained unclear if the group exists or has any link to al-Qaida. Atef was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in November 2001.
In Baghdad, 150 U.N. employees held a somber memorial service on Saturday to remember their colleagues killed in the Aug. 19 bombing of the U.N. office.
Meanwhile, thousands of angry mourners called for vengeance as they gathered outside the Imam Ali shrine, site of the bombing in Najaf.
“Our leader al-Hakim is gone! We want the blood of the killers of al-Hakim!” a crowd of 4,000 men chanted while beating their chests.
The bombing was certain to complicate American efforts to pacify an increasingly violent Iraq. A moderate cleric, al-Hakim was seen as a stabilizing force in Iraq. He repeatedly asked the country’s Shiite majority to be patient with the United States.
Al-Hakim was the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. A member of the group’s politburo, Ali al-Ghadban, said the bombing would not deter it from cooperating with the Americans.
“We will continue in our dealing with the Americans, but the Americans should now be more aware of the fact that the Iraqis only are capable of preserving the security in the country,” al-Ghadban said Saturday in Baghdad.
“They (the Americans) are responsible for the incident because of their failure to provide security in Iraq.” He said the group would press the Americans for more powers for Iraqis.
Tens of thousands of worshippers filled the shrine and the surrounding streets for a funeral services for the victims. There was to be a service for al-Hakim in Baghdad early Sunday with the body then taken to Karbala, near Najaf. It was to be buried in Najaf on Tuesday.
In Najaf, the main road leading to the shrine was open only to pedestrians, and residents were seen carrying coffins on the tops of cars and backs of trucks for the service.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. occupation’s coordinator for Iraq, was out of the country on vacation and had no plans to return early because of the bombing.
While many here blamed the attack on the Sunni Muslim followers of Saddam Hussein, there has been fighting between Shiites as well.
Najaf, 110 miles southwest of Baghdad, is the headquarters of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite rivals, including followers of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr. Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s population.
Also Saturday, a U.S. soldier was in critical condition after his Humvee plunged into a canal during preparations for a raid on the outskirts of al-Abbarah, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.
During the raid, dozens of soldiers supported by tanks and helicopters stormed seven houses and detained three men, including two suspected officials from Saddam’s regime, said Lt. Col. Mark Young, commander of 3rd Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Division.